When the actor Paul Chahidi was leaving drama school, he met a seasoned agent. Suit and tie, leather chairs, schooner of white wine at 3pm. Old school. “He sat down, a bit too close to me,” Chahidi remembers, “and said: ‘Three things you should know about yourself – one, you’ve got a funny foreign name; two, you’re losing your hair; three, you’ll never play Romeo. But you can act – and with that we can go a long way.’” Chahidi was too surprised to take offence. “And it turned out he was right.”
Star players often begin as winsome, floppy-haired Romeos or Juliets. But pretty doesn’t always endure – for longevity, look to the odd. “I was a character actor from the very beginning and not really sold as pretty,” Susan Sarandon told the Guardian in 2017, “which is probably what’s allowed me to survive as long as I have.”
What makes a character actor? Consider a litany of cherished survivors: Julie Walters and Alison Steadman, Toby Jones and Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton and Timothy Spall. They play the un-cheekboned, the anti-suave, the awkward stumblers through life and love. No wonder they are so often beloved: they speak for people like us. Chahidi’s precision work on television (buoyant vicar in This Country), film (quivering apparatchik in The Death of Stalin) and stage (Maria in the Globe’s all-male Twelfth Night) might seem the essence of character acting but he’s no fan of the term. “It does seem a little bit dated, and sometimes you sense there’s something reductive in it,” he tells me. “Is Meryl Streep a character actor? Mark Rylance? In a sense, who cares? You can either convince as the character or you can’t. In my mind it comes down to whether they are transformative or not.”
The earliest instances of the term in the Oxford English Dictionary date from the mid-19th century and suggest actors noted for idiosyncratic and eccentric roles. As a concept, it is far older – theatre historian Gilli Bush-Bailey traces it back at least to the Restoration, where particular actors specialised in fops, bumpkins or harridans, and believes that the mid-20th century repertory system solidified the notion.
Weekly rep, with minimal rehearsal, had no time for left-field casting. People were required to play to type. Bush-Bailey’s parents were both actors whose careers were shaped by precisely these notions. Her mother, “very tall and quite gawky”, was brought up in upper-middle-class society, presented at court and “could not do accents to save her life” yet she was repeatedly cast as barmaids and charladies.
The rep system set expectations for drama schools and the wider profession. Chahidi points me towards vintage editions of Spotlight, the actors’ directory. Actors are divided not only into gender but also “Leading and Young Leading” actors or “Character Men/Women and Comedians”. Character players stress their versatility, often through contrasting snapshots: ease with accents (“fluent cockney”), traversing class (pairing photos in top hat and flat cap) and age. A young Warren Mitchell presents himself in street-savvy denim and as a dinner-jacketed old duffer. Joyce Hemson advances her “character comedy – tarts, barmaids, charwomen, etc”. No wonder modern actors bridle at a term that seems mired in Britain’s class system.
In 1966, the character sections housed “the world’s most travelled TV cat impersonator” alongside emerging comic stars such as Penelope Keith and Nigel Hawthorne. There too, gazing moodily from the pages, is a youthful Brian Cox. “It’s such a long time ago,” the star of Succession sighs on the phone from New York. “In the 1960s, there was this differential. But then came people like Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Alan Bates. They’re all characterful men, so it was very much the thing to be.”
Now in his 70s, Cox has “always believed in the long haul,” he says. “I never thought of myself as a juvenile leading man.” He did play classical leads – Titus Andronicus at the RSC, Lear at the National – but then aimed at US cinema. “Film is an egalitarian medium,” he says. “Even if an actor is only on set for one day, that’s their day … I like to be a commando: going in and getting out.” Even his protagonists, as in the recent film The Etruscan Smile, may “carry the story, but are very much character roles”. He rebuts any stigma attached to the term. “Any actor worth his salt is a character actor.”
Samantha Spiro, bright-eyed and crackle-voiced, is worth an awful lot of salt. She has triumphed as the bittersweet heroine in a West End run of Lady Windermere’s Fan, as the brassy matchmaker in Hello, Dolly! and as a memorably agitated Lady Macbeth at the Globe in London. “Every part you play, whether it’s near to you or not, is a character,” Spiro reflects. “Sometimes you speak in your own voice and walk in a similar way – whereas it’s more obvious if you’ve got a hunchback and a wig. Actually, it’s the same process. You want to get away from yourself. As far away as you possibly can.”
With that distance, Spiro used to feel most comfortable. “When directors at drama school would try to make me more of a juvenile lead, I felt incredibly vulnerable. It felt as though they wanted to close me down.” Even in musicals, “I couldn’t sing unless I was in character. I know that sounds crazy, but I honestly don’t feel I know what my voice is. If you put me in character, I feel the freedom to sing as her. Mad.”
She admits that roles that seemed close to home “made me feel slightly sick. If it felt too recognisable I shied away from it.” She takes a deep breath. “I think I’m talking about my Jewishness.” Working with Mike Leigh (on Two Thousand Years at the National) made her “confront a lot of things. It certainly opened the door to playing some roles that were intensely personal, like Chicken Soup With Barley [by Arnold Wesker] and [Simon Amstell’s sitcom] Grandma’s House.”
Burrowing within or hurling yourself beyond – each is essential to finding character. “Transformation is essential to an actor,” insists Joanna Read, principal at the drama school Lamda. “Good actors are all character actors, and any actor should be able to play any part.” She doubts that the term still has currency among drama students. “This generation won’t put labels on themselves, quite rightly, and we don’t want to limit them. We advise them on how to engage with the industry – and crucially on how to make their own opportunities. The type of career they have should be down to them.”
Yet drama school can be where problems begin. “My drama school found it very hard to place me,” says Chahidi. “I would get out and out comic roles, or old men. On one occasion I was asked to play a Pakistani janitor – I’m not Pakistani.” Pigeonholing is, he thinks, a peril of the profession, especially in castings for film and TV, where “people will make up their minds about you extremely quickly, as soon as you walk through the door. In theatre, you have more leeway to convince people.”
“Screen castings might define you more by appearance,” Read concedes, “but we encourage students not to simply accept that. The way the industry will change is by voices challenging received ideas.” I love this idealism – but is it how the industry actually operates? Casting director Sophie Parrott cautions that “particularly on screen, the reality can be very different. A homogenised beauty can dominate. I enjoy working in theatre as I feel there is often more flexibility as to what constitutes a lead – physical appearances are less important.” But Parrott also notes that in Hollywood, conventional stars no longer reliably produce profit. “The industry has had to reconsider its approach to casting. This has allowed character actors to step into the fore and become ‘leading’ in their own right.”
Character actors thrive in a world without heroes. Bilge Ebiri, in the New York Times, charted their ascendancy. Don Cheadle or Michael Shannon play complex leads in lower-budget movies, while “in mega-films (especially superhero ones), they are relied upon for their ability to bring soul to underdeveloped, potentially cliched parts”.
Age, scourge of the pretty, can unleash an actor’s quixotic glory – see Hugh Grant’s late flowering as Jeremy Thorpe and Paddington’s nemesis. As Parrott argues, “age sometimes allows us to widen the box in which we see an actor, and opens up their range of roles”. Or, as Spiro has it, “it’s such a relief when you don’t have to just look lovely. For a lot of people in this business, growing older is really tough. But actually, being released into lack of vanity is extremely liberating. You can act.”
So, does Spiro think of herself as a character actor? “As long as I work, I don’t care what people call me,” she declares. “But somebody said recently that I was part of a group of ‘character leading actors’, and that felt like a real compliment. I hadn’t heard those words put together until then.” And how about Chahidi? “If you mean it as a compliment, I’ll take it. If not, screw you.”
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